Congressional audience hopes to hear from Biden on China strategy

Schumer has committed to bringing China legislation to the floor

Members of the Foreign Relations Committee, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., hope to hear from the president on China policy. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of the Foreign Relations Committee, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., hope to hear from the president on China policy. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 27, 2021 at 5:30am

Much of the coverage in advance of President Joe Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night has been on the speech’s domestic policy components.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, lawmakers have diverse interests, so everyone will have some country or region that they would like to see the president mention Wednesday. But there is one recurring theme in recent conversations with lawmakers. They want to hear Biden talk about China.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was among those telling CQ Roll Call that he hopes the president will focus attention on the rival nation. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said senators want to hear “the beginnings of a comprehensive strategy on China.”

How the United States will counter China, including that country’s vast foreign investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, is already a bipartisan priority for the 117th Congress.

Last week, Menendez’s committee advanced a sweeping China competition bill, a measure that could prove to be a historic step.

“The issue facing us today in foreign policy and perhaps for the entire 21st century is going to be China, China, China, and this is our answer,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said as the committee was considering the legislation.

‘A rare opportunity’

On a parallel track, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has teamed with Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young and a broad, bipartisan coalition to reintroduce a legislative package focused on bolstering U.S. investments in scientific research and innovation, seeking a competitive edge over China’s rush to establish global technological dominance.

“We face a pivotal time in history,” Young said in a statement. “Right now, the Chinese Communist Party is emphasizing to the world that the United States is a divided nation. This is a rare opportunity to show the authoritarians in Beijing, and the rest of the world, that when it comes to our national security, and most importantly our China policy, we are united.”

Schumer said he was committed to bringing “a bipartisan competitiveness bill” to the floor, and suggested key components would be both the bill from the Foreign Relations Committee and legislation to invest in science and technology.

There’s perhaps no better indication of possible bipartisan cooperation than the partnership of Schumer, the majority leader, and Young, who served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the last election cycle.

Biden, having wielded the gavel of the Foreign Relations Committee during his own Senate career, is intimately familiar with the way members of Congress approach international affairs. And it will fall to his speechwriters to distill the traditionally long-winded president’s foreign policy and national security interests into one portion of a speech expected to focus primarily on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the White House’s domestic priorities.

China is far from the only country currently piquing the interest of lawmakers.

“Personally, I would love to hear something about renewed attention into the Americas, which would be a natural if we’re talking about the border crisis and things like that. That crisis is never going away until there’s more security and stability, especially in the Northern Triangle,” Kaine said, referring to the conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that are driving waves of migrants north to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Afghanistan case

While in-person attendance at the speech — even by members of Congress — will be limited because of the pandemic, lawmakers will also want to hear Biden defend his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks that spurred the 2001 invasion that marked the beginning of America’s longest war.

“It’ll be important for him to make the case on Afghanistan,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy said. “I’m a supporter of the president’s decision, but it’s important for Congress to hear from him that he’s listening to the people who don’t want forever wars, and he wants to be able to strategically reorient the United States to theaters that matter more.”

Among those more important theaters? China.

“Congress is greatly obsessed with China right now,” Murphy said. “It’s really hard to have a China focus if you have to plan every single day for what 2,000 troops are doing in Afghanistan.”

But Murphy and other lawmakers — each with their unique priorities — may have to settle for what Biden deems most critical. Much of the address will focus on domestic priorities, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing last week that there will be no way for Biden to touch on everything.

“I will say, because I’ve been through a few journeys with these speeches before, that it is a very important speech, a very high-profile speech, but it is happening around the 100th day of his presidency, and it won’t represent or touch on the totality of every issue that’s a priority,” Psaki said. “Unless you want to sit through a seven-hour speech, which I don’t think you do.”

Mary Ellen McIntire and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.